top of page

Contraband as a form of resistance at the India-Pakistan border: Evidence from the Punjab borderland


Ilyas Chattha.jpg

Border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan, at the Wagah-Attari border post. Picture by Schüler1000 on Wikimedia Source (CC BY-SA 4.0).



The establishment of Punjab in 1947 as an international boundary between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan divided a population that spoke the same language and shared similar cultural traditions. Along the over 550-kilometre section of this western boundary, the Punjab border bears many of the hallmarks of its South Asian prototype. Nevertheless, over the intervening years, cartographical anxieties over security and territorial sovereignty triggered concerns regarding unregulated mobilities and the prevalence of informal economies. The border was surveyed, demarcated, and marked with pillars, security forces were deployed, and in the aftermath of Sikh militancy in the 1980s, a section was fenced off by India. This paper provides a unique insight into the lived realities of the Punjab borderland. It looks at the process of boundary-making and its implications for the local people as well as for the divided cities of Lahore and Amritsar, which fell narrowly on either side of the international border. Drawing on access to previously unexplored border surveillance reports and Punjabi border ballads, this paper problematises conceptions that the border was closed, even in the wake of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. Lastly, I draw on a more extended argument whether contraband trade and unofficial border crossings could be considered as resistance to the division of Punjab, in my soon to be published book, The Punjab borderland: Mobility, materiality, and militancy, 1947-1987 (Cambridge University Press, November 2021).


Constraints and opportunities: ‘a single package’ 


Security analysts have sought to constitute the issue of the India-Pakistan border as a sensitive one and a matter of national security. They frame the border as a site where the state fought for its sovereignty and border population suffered from interstate conflicts, as a recent work of Sumit Ganguly and Christing Fair explains. This discourse has intensified the widely accepted notion of early Pakistan as a ‘fearful’ state with weak control over its frontiers and has contributed to strategic insecurity and the military’s dominance over politics. This dominant narrative is limited, however; it does not address how the new postcolonial borderlands deal with the state, which resulted in the presentation of border-dwelling people as ‘a fixed category’. Moving beyond the established historiographical narrative of focusing on the India-Pakistan borders as ‘sensitive spaces’, this paper contributes to the emerging scholarship on borderland studies that have begun to consider the border as creating new opportunities along with uncertainties for borderland communities. In Paul Nugent’s book, Boundaries, Communities and State-Making in West Africa, he refers to this as ‘a single package’ that makes borders both spaces of ambivalence and ambiguity as well as ‘fascinating research sites’.


Dispelling the received wisdom


Dispelling the established historiographical narratives of an increasingly militarised border symbolic of inter-state animosity, this paper corrects these accounts by re-surfacing narratives of border crossings and social relations built on mutual benefit and trust. It conceptualises the making of contraband as more than just a way for borderland societies to evade the state’s imposition of a partitioned geography on their lifeworlds, but as a catalyst for enabling social mobility and political empowerment for the population involved, and a thriving market for consumption in the urban centres. Scholarship in Partition studies such as Talbot’s Divided cities, Partition and its aftermath in Lahore and Amritsar has shown ‘1947’ suddenly disrupted local lifeworlds that had until then been closely intertwined and this separation of integrated areas by an international boundary criminalised everyday trade. Rather than becoming a hostage to geography, this paper argues, borderland societies transcribed their own meaning onto the border: continuing to carry goods across the newly imposed lines and accepting some forms of smuggling as socially just. By utilising pre-Partition connections and navigation knowledge, they formed temporary alliances through identifying kinships, lineage networks and other forms of patronage to carry out contraband operations for profits. This was both simply a continuation of existing networks of regional trade as well as a spectre of resistance against border institutions.


Punjabi border ballads


These multitudinous themes emerge from previously unexplored Punjabi border ballads about the border dwellers’ experiences of the border, who perceived crossing as a means to improve their social and economic position. Expectations for opportunities were not ‘fictional’ as defined by Beckert in Imagined futures: Fictional expectations and capitalist dynamics, but socially rooted in mutually shared beliefs, cross-border networks, culture narratives, occult practices, and rumours of heroic outlaws. This underscores the notion of the border as a line imposed from above, from the ‘centre’, which does not truly conform to the realities of the border people on the ground. Song lyrics depict the border as a non-combative battlefield between the smugglers and border guards, alongside enabling social mobility, as the Punjabi song says:

Captura de pantalla (13).png


By using the dedicatory border lyrics with a wealth of archival materials and oral sources, this exploration hints that there was a broad variety of moral categories in the Punjab borderland that recalled and enacted a shared past. There were distinct advantages to the local population in the borderland where people continued to carry goods across the new international line, responding to the state-imposed restrictions in varied ways and creating their own native values about transborder mobility and materiality.

Ilyas Chattha is a historian of modern South Asian history and teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. He was previously based at the Centre for Imperial and Postcolonial Studies, University of Southampton, where he obtained his PhD in 2009. He has also been associated with the University of Warwick and SOAS, University of London. He is the author of The Punjab borderland: Mobility, materiality, and militancy, 1947-1987 (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Partition and locality (Oxford University Press, 2012). Besides, he has authored numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes on Partition and its legacies, as well as on environmental, medical and media history. He is currently working on a project: ‘Prisoners of Pakistan: Bengali civilian and combatant internees during the 1971 War’. Email:

puerro largo.png
bottom of page